The Insurgency: Advantage Ba'athists

Thinking back on my time as a weapons inspector in Iraq, I often compare and contrast the memories of what I saw and experienced during my nearly seven-year experience in the Iraq of Saddam Hussein, and that which I see through the lens of the media since the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The experience has ranged from the deeply personal, seeing the very office spaces I and other inspectors worked in at the U.N. Headquarters compound in the Canal Hotel blown up in November 2003; to the spiritual, with the most recent horror inflicted on Iraq being the destruction of the al-Askari shrine, part of the Imam Ali al-Hadi Mausoleum.

The Canal Hotel had been my home away from home during my tenure as a U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq. It was the "home base" of the inspection teams, a sanctuary from which we sortied out on a daily basis to wage disarmament. It was also a safe haven to which we returned at the end of the day, exhausted and frazzled from inspections which, for the last few years of our work in Iraq, more often than not ended in crisis and confrontation. Here we could call home and speak to loved ones, go downstairs for a quiet meal in the U.N. cafeteria, and at night join our friends and colleagues for a barbecue and drinks at the U.N. bar.

The Canal Hotel was also home to other U.N. organizations, and its status as a symbol of the international community made it the ideal target for the Ba'athist resistance to the U.S. occupation of Iraq. By blowing up the Canal Hotel, the Ba'athist insurgents not only killed the U.N. envoy, Sergio De Mello, and 16 others in the fall of 2003, but also the hope and promise of the international community emerging as a force of mediation and reconciliation between a brutal and incompetent American occupation force and an Iraqi people weary of war but distrustful of the foreign powers that governed their country.

The United Nations represented the best chance for a buffer to be positioned between the U.S. occupiers and the occupied Iraqi people, greatly reducing friction and with it the threat of increased violence and the resulting chaos and anarchy such violence would breed. The targeting of the Canal Hotel was a carefully premeditated act on the part of the Ba'athist resistance, designed to drive out of Iraq the one organization that might keep the U.S. occupation authority from self-destructing.

The brutal attack was efficient beyond all expectations. The United Nations left, never to return with any real strength or genuine authority. With the U.N. umbrella eliminated, other nongovernmental organizations likewise fled Iraq, leaving a huge void in the reconstruction of Iraq, an enormous task that was now thrust solely on the shoulders of the United States.

Corruption, greed and incompetence trumped the sacrifice made by U.S. service members in Iraq, dooming the reconstruction effort to fail spectacularly. The increased demands placed on the U.S. military in terms of both fighting an insurgency and carrying out reconstruction programs (two missions which are inherently different and ultimately contradictory in nature), meant that the points of friction between the U.S. occupiers and the Iraqi people were increased by an order of magnitude, much to the detriment of the cause of peace and stability.

The minds behind the insurgency

The reason I focus on the Canal Hotel attack is that it clearly demonstrates how horribly brilliant the Iraqi insurgency led by the former Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein is, and how well they understand the complicated internal dynamic of Iraq, especially when contrasted with the sheer ignorance of the U.S. occupation forces and those who formulate policy back in Washington, D.C. The Canal Hotel attack set in motion a sequence of events that has resulted in the strengthening of the insurgency and the weakening of the U.S.-led occupation.

The chaos and anarchy that dominates the Iraqi domestic scene today is a direct result of the Canal Hotel bombing, and represents the underlying strategy of the Ba'athist insurgents, which is to create the conditions within Iraq where the Iraqi people have lost faith in the American occupier and their proxy Iraqi government to bring about peace and stability. The goal is also to create divisions within Iraqi society based upon ethnic and religious allegiances that play well to the Ba'athist tactics of divide and conquer.

The Ba'athist strategy emphasizes chaos. One of the byproducts of chaos is unpredictability, and the Ba'athists have succeeded in mitigating the unpredictability of the anarchy transpiring in Iraq by carefully controlling the violence they inflict, both in terms of timing and target. Most observers of Iraq equate the terror being unleashed as a manifestation of the mindless lashing out of desperate holdovers (or, to quote Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, "dead enders") from the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The violence is actually part of a careful campaign being waged by the Ba'athists, where specific acts are carefully sequenced in an effort to overwhelm the enemy (in this case, the United States and the new Iraqi government) with their combined effects. The fact that the Ba'athists have for the most part successfully insulated themselves from being directly implicated in these attacks by creating and managing a non-Iraqi proxy, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, to serve as the alleged instigator of these attacks, is all the more evidence of the depth of their strategic thinking.

We in America have conditioned ourselves to seek the quick, dramatic victory. As such, we viewed every engagement with the Iraqi insurgents as being 'decisive'. Witness the media's breathless coverage of the battles for Falluja, Mosul, Tall Afar, Najaf, Sadr City and Samara. In all cases, there was no decisive engagement, and the end result has always been to the benefit of the insurgency and the detriment of the American occupier.

The Iraqi insurgency being managed by the Ba'athists has a much longer-term approach. Its goal is total victory, and given the current state of affairs, it is better positioned to win in Iraq than either the United States or the fatally flawed Iraqi government that has emerged from the U.S.-led occupation.

The fact that the Iraqi government is so weak is further testament to the effectiveness of the Ba'athist insurgency. By driving out the United Nations as a meaningful force inside post-Saddam Iraq, the Ba'athist insurgents guaranteed that the electoral process taking place in Iraq would fall under the heavy (and overwhelmingly incompetent) hand of the U.S. government. By carefully shaping the ideological battlefield, as well as controlling the nature and pace of the actual fighting on the ground, the Ba'athist insurgents made sure that the election process lost any credibility as a legitimate expression of the unified will of the Iraqi people, and instead was hijacked by the forces of Kurdish independence and Shi'a fundamentalism which had been the mortal enemy of the Ba'athists for so many decades.

The United States was so focused on defeating the insurgency and creating the conditions for a national election in Iraq that it totally capitulated the formation of the post-Saddam Iraqi government to pro-Iranian factions. The new government of the pro-Iranian Dawa Shi'a Islamic fundamentalist Ibrahim Jafari, propped up by the Shi'a fundamentalists of the pro-Iranian Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq today serves as a defacto extension of the Iranian government.

This "victory" on the part of the pro-Iranian Shi'a in Iraq (and by extension, the theocracy in Tehran) seems to have been the goal and objective of the Ba'athists all along. An old adage of American Special Forces is, "the best way to lure your enemy into an ambush is to get him to do what he wanted to do all along." This seems to be the case when it comes to how the Ba'athists have managed both the American occupation of Iraq and the rise to power in Iraq of the Shi'a theocrats.

When the United States initiated its ill-advised de-Ba'athification program shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Ba'athists quickly exploited the American paranoia of Al Qaida by creating and managing the Zarqawi myth, diluting the anti-Ba'athist focus of the American campaign by having the U.S.-led coalition chase shadows across Iraq. The Zarqawi myth also enabled the Ba'athists to initiate a campaign of violence against the Shi'a in Iraq, which radicalized that population, guaranteeing that the radical pro-Iranian elements of that community would emerge as the dominant force, as opposed to any U.S.-supported force for moderation.

Bringing Iraq and Iran closer

The reason for this shaping of the post-Saddam government by the Ba'athists is simple: to drive a wedge between the new Iraqi government and the American occupation force that would in the long term end up pitting one side against the other. Under this mindset, the United States and the Shi'a-led theocracy in Baghdad would over time grow apart, their differences concerning the future direction of Iraq expanding to the point of strategic incompatibility that would result in the outbreak of open violence which would be detrimenal to both the U.S. and the radical Shi'a, while the Ba'athist insurgency waits on the sidelines to pick up the pieces.

But the Ba'athist manipulation of events goes beyond the borders of Iraq. By helping to facilitate the coming to power of a radical pro-Iranian government in Baghdad that is inherently incompatible with the goals and objectives of the United States in Iraq, the Ba'athists have not only set in motion a looming conflict between the American occupation forces and the Iraqi government they helped create, but by extension, between the United States and the strategic enemy of the Iraqi Ba'athists, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The close ties between the new government of Iraq and the theocracy of Iran are such that, from the perspective of the United States, one of the more viable solutions to the problem of the new Iraqi government would be to seek to destroy the regime of the mullahs in Teheran, which by extension would cause its proxies in Baghdad to whither on the vine, opening the door for a more moderate government to take hold.

From the Ba'athist point of view, a struggle between the United States and Iran, which would by extension become a struggle between the United States and the new Iraqi government, would result in the defeat of the mullahs in Teheran and the theocrats in Baghdad. It would also so weaken the United States in terms of political will to sustain a larger conflict in the Middle East that the mergence of a Sunni-led secular government in Baghdad, led by the Ba'athist party but operating under a different political face, would not only not be actively resisted, but rather embraced and encouraged.

It is within this context that one must assess the recent bombing of the Shi'a holy site, the Al-Askari Shrine, part of the Imam Ali-al-Hadi Mausoleum, in the city of Samara. I had first visited the Ali al-Hadi Mausoleum in March 1992, stopping in Samara for a brief sightseeing after several days of inspection in northern Iraq. The shrine's golden dome was visible from the Baghdad-Mosul Highway and dominated the city's vistas with its beauty. That the attack was the work of the Ba'athist insurgents there can be little doubt. The explosive demolition of the golden dome was professionally done, with charges being set into holes drilled into each of the four pillars holding the dome up.

The destruction of the shrine's golden dome was not only a highly visible attack which symbolized the impotence of the U.S.-led occupation and the new Iraqi government, but also an attack which sought to shock the more radical Shi'a of Iraq, and by extension their masters in Iran, into breaking out of their self-imposed moratorium on sectarian violence, and in the process setting Iraq down the path of civil war.

Iraq's slow-burning civil war

Most American observers of Iraq equate the term civil war with a conflict along the lines of the American Civil War, with large, well-organized military forces clashing in decisive battle. It is highly unlikely the Iraqi Civil War would ever reach that stage until the very end of the game. For the most part, the Ba'athists want to have a civil war that grinds away at a slow burn, eroding confidence in the U.S.-affiliated central authority and the U.S.-led occupation and retarding economic stability through a constant level of violence that percolates a few degrees short of the boiling point. Because we in the United States don't see the spectacular battles, we operate under the misperception that the Iraqi Civil War is still something that can be avoided. As a result, we implement policies designed to forestall a civil conflict that in reality is already taking place.

This kind of ignorance and shortsightedness is apparent in how the United States is responding to the bombing of the Al-Askari Shrine. This shrine is one of the holiest places in the Shi'a faith. It is here that the 10th and 11th Imam's (direct descendents of the Prophet Mohammed so revered in the Shi'a faith), Ali al-Maqi and Hasan al-Askari, are buried, and where the remains of the 12th Imam, Mohammad ibn Hasan al-Askari, disappeared. Shi'a Muslims believe that the "missing Imam" will return at the end of time and lead an era of Islamic justice. In attacking this shrine, the Ba'athist insurgents targeted a place as holy to the Shi'a faith as the Wailing Wall is to Jews or St. Peter's Basilica is to Catholics.

But the significance of the attack on the Al-Askari shrine goes far beyond religious insult. If the attack on the Canal Hotel was designed to drive out the United Nations and create the conditions for the rise to power of the Shi'a theocrats in Iraq, the attack on the Al-Askari shrine was designed to drive together the Iraqi theocratic government with their counterparts in Iran, creating a unified entity which the United States government could no longer treat separately, and which would further fuel the Bush administration's predilection for action against Iran.

The Ba'athist insurgents are only too aware of the fact that Iran's conservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is an admirer, if not adherent, of the Hojjatieh Society in Iran, founded by the former Shah of Iran in 1953 as a vehicle to eradicate the followers of the Baha'i faith.

Banned in the early 1980s by the Iranian theocracy, the Hojjatieh Society expands on the notion of the return of the 12th Imam, or Mahdi, believing that his return will be hastened by the creation of chaos on earth. The Hojjatieh Society was founded at the Haqqani theological school in the Iranian holy city of Qom. President Ahmadinejad, who is himself not a cleric, has made clear his respect for the Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, an extremely conservative religious leader with close ties to the Haqqani theological school in Qom and the banned Hojjatieh Society.

Again, by using the notion that the best way to guarantee an outcome is to get your opponent to do what he already wants to do, the attack on the Al-Askari shrine creates the conditions in which those who would be most affected by the attack (the leaders in Iran and their like-minded counterparts in Iraq) would be drawn even more closely together.

This new alliance would further alienate the United States from the Iraqi government, damaging any prospects for the creation within Iraq of the conditions necessary for the early withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, an issue that has taken on increasing importance on the American domestic political front. As the conditions in Iraq deteriorate, pressure will continue to build on both the Bush administration and Congress to come up with a solution to the problem in Iraq.

Given the politically embarrassing close ties forged between the Iraqi government and the Iranians, the temptation for those planning policy in Washington, D.C., to view the quickest path home from Baghdad as being a trip through Teheran might become too tempting.

The Bush administration is already chomping at the bit to attack Iran, using the vexing Iranian nuclear program as a diplomatic smokescreen to cover broader regime-change intent. The developing close ties between Baghdad and Teheran will only reinforce this tendency towards confrontation. Therein lies the awful genius of those who attacked the Al-Askari shrine: the Ba'athist insurgents in Iraq are playing the policy planners in the Bush administration like a fine-tuned fiddle.

The importance of changing course

The soundest solution to this problem would be to de-escalate both the American presence in Iraq and the level of tension regarding Iran. The greatest fear on the part of the Ba'athist insurgents would be an early withdrawal of the American military from Iraq. Such a withdrawal would in one fell swoop eliminate the primary source of friction within Iraq that fuels the cycle of violence. It would also de-link the Iraq problem from the Iranian problem in the minds of U.S. policy formulators.

The Ba'athist insurgents know that the United States is navigating itself towards a perfect storm in the Middle East, pursuing policies vis--vis Iraq and Iran that can only logically culminate in massive violence. Since the Ba'athist strategy for reasserting itself as the dominant force inside Iraq requires such violence and chaos, the last thing they would want is for the United States to recognize the folly of its way, and change course in order to ride the Iraq-Iran storm out in a safe port.

Disengagement is the only policy option available to American politicians to avoid a new war in the Middle East. But there is no mainstream politician, Democrat or Republican, with the courage and vision to articulate such a policy. The main reason for this is that the majority of the American people seem more inclined to support the troops by having them march off to war, than by bringing them home.

So long as American politicians and policy makers feel that military options are more politically viable on the domestic political front than diplomacy, there will be no stopping our slippery slide down towards the abyss. The American people seem to be addicted to war and violence every bit as much as they are addicted to Middle Eastern oil.

The Iraqi insurgents are only too happy to help feed that addiction by creating the conditions that continually wave a red flag in the face of the American war machine, making us lash out blindly much like a bull in the arena, exhausting ourselves until we reach the point of being utterly powerless to prevent our opponents from slipping in behind and driving a blade through our heart.

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